Ignatian Heritage Serving others

My year of living simple

How my year of living with less helped me learn more about serving others—and about myself

“Doc Martins or rain boots?” I ask Mackenzie as she slides on her flats. My four housemates and I are at the front door, about to set off for a night out. Yet, this night is a bit different from when I went out with friends just months before as a senior at Loyola. While spending a year in service with the Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry (BSVM), I’ve made a choice to live more simply; to live with less. My choices have been simplified as well—what shoes should I wear with this skirt? Except that beyond selecting my pair of shoes, there lie much more complex questions.

A few months after graduating from Loyola, I arrived in Baltimore to begin my year of service. As we drove through what would be my new neighborhood, I saw sidewalks that were littered and crumbling. Soon enough, I would be discovering needles on my walks to work. But I would also discover a new perspective.

To prepare for a career of bringing healing to underserved populations as a physician, I wanted to get my feet wet in a hospital setting. Spending a year with the BSVM—an organization I first learned about during an Alternative Break Immersion at Loyola—seemed like an appropriate way to do it. More importantly, it is what I felt called to do.

I would be working full-time in patient advocacy at a community hospital that largely served an uninsured and underinsured patient population. Additionally, I would be living in an intentional community with four other recent college graduates. Together, we’d embrace and struggle with the BSVM values of community, service, faith, justice, and, of course, simplicity—like choosing between the Doc Martins and rain boots.

Defining "enough"

As I lace up the boots, deciding how to best tie them so they appear more feminine or at least sort of pragmatically edgy, I feel silly. Worried about how people might judge me, I have found myself defaulting to materials to feel more confident. This year, I’ve been challenged to define what is “enough” to live with. I’ve also been confronted with what not enough means to my patients.

On one of the first days with below freezing temperatures, a woman asked for shoes from the hospital’s Good Help Clothing Closet, which I help to manage. I sent her out into the cold wearing a pair of Crocs, which is all that we had in her size. As I lifted the patient’s dry, cracked feet to layer two pairs of socks on, I hoped she would be warm enough.

Wanting others to have their needs met encouraged me to make a conscious effort to understand my own true needs. Amazingly, by allowing time for the process, the mission “to live simply so that others may simply live” had the beautiful middle step of helping me to discover self-love. As I recognized myself as enough, I stopped seeking satisfaction in activities and material items. It has helped me make choices that harmonize my own authenticity with the world around me. Self-love enables us to love others more genuinely.

I remember sitting in Loyola’s pre-health advising office with Jim Johnson, discussing theologian Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation: “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.” Up to that point, I had been blending my interest in health with the joy I found in dance. I spent a summer at a Bolivian orphanage, where I taught dance as a way to build community and improve people’s health. Back in Rogers Park, I’d been teaching jazz at an assisted living home to improve residents’ mental and physical health. I knew I also had the talents to collaborate on healing as a physician, but I needed to immerse myself in medical service before I could commit my life to it. So, I delayed my medical school applications for one year to join BSVM. Through BSVM, I confirmed that a career in poverty medicine would bring me great joy.

I will never fully understand the realities of what those living in poverty experience. For this, I am grateful. I am grateful that my survival needs have always been met and that I have always had the tools to thrive. At the same time, I must not ignore my privilege. The intentional choice to live more simply enables me to begin to live in solidarity with others. It says that others matter. My actions show that I will share our world’s limited resources and that I respect that which I mindfully choose to use.

Loving myself and loving others

Seeking to live simply removes some of the chaos that surrounds us and begs those important questions of how I define myself and how that definition affects others. But these questions could really be asked as “How do I love myself more fully?” and “How does this enable me to love others better?”

After completing my year with BSVM, I continue to be challenged by these questions. Now attending medical school at the University of Missouri, I continue to approach service as a way of life. As a part of the St. Francis Catholic Worker community, I’m able to host people who are homeless in my new home, an experience that colors my medical education with compassion and deeper understanding of the social determinants of health. It helps me build trust with the patients I see at our student-run free clinic, MedZou, which I coordinate medical outreach for and will be a student director at this January.

Today, I am still reminded that a simpler approach to life, one that acknowledges my own dignity and the dignity of those around me, lifts and enriches us all.